'It's a mess': Manitoba fishers missing close to $1 million in payments

Staff at four Manitoba fisheries — Dawson Bay Fish Packers, Eddystone Fisheries Co-op, Ashern Fisheries Co-op and Waterhen Winter Fisheries — are owed as much as $1.1 million, according to a man who has been fishing on Lake Manitoba for more than 50 years

Manitoba fishers face missing payments following the province's switch to a new marketing model

A Lake Manitoba fisher says four fisheries in the area are owed close to $1 million. (Mikey Smith)

Fishers in Manitoba could be out close to $1 million just weeks after the switch to a new, privatized marketing system, according to a man who has been fishing on Lake Manitoba for more than 50 years. 

Frank Kenyon, a director at WMM Fisheries Co-op, says owners of four Manitoba fisheries — Dawson Bay Fish Packers, Eddystone Fisheries Co-op, Ashern Fisheries Co-op and Waterhen Winter Fisheries — are owed between $700,000 and $1.1 million following business dealings with a company called Northern Walleye Inc. 

Kenyon says Northern Walleye agreed to market fish to American companies on behalf of the four companies. 

In August Manitoba informed the federal government it would be withdrawing from the Freshwater Fish Marketing Act. The legislation enabled the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation to buy, process and then sell most of the fish caught in Manitoba waters.

The Crown corporation, as a kind of monopoly, set a price for freshwater fish from Manitoba and marketed the products outside of the province.

Since Dec. 1 fishers have been able to choose to work with the FFMC or sell their catch privately. 

'It's a mess': Donald Salkeld

Donald Salkeld, the owner Northern Walleye, says the original deal was to sell the Manitoba fishers' catch to a single U.S. company, but fishers were producing "400 per cent" of what they said they were going to produce, which is why the catch was moved to two other processing plants.  

Salkeld, a former president of the FFMC, was hired in in December 2014, but after an auditor general's investigation he was placed on leave and, in December 2016, terminated "with cause" by the Liberal cabinet.

Salkeld told CBC News at the time that he was only trying to make the agency more efficient and that "unfortunately, when you make change to the status quo, you create enemies." 

Brett Reetz, attorney for Dan's Fish Inc., says the company was contacted by Northern Walleye. 

"It was represented to Dan's Fish that they [Northern Walleye] had shipped a bunch of fresh water seafood to an Illinois company," Reetz said, adding the Illinois company had decided not to pay.  

Donald Salkeld, the owner Northern Walleye Inc. says he sold the fish to three U.S. companies. (CBC)

Reetz says Northern Walleye told Dan's Fish that the fish had not been processed and was sitting in limbo.

Reetz said of Dan's Fish, Dan Schwarz, never signed a contract for the fish or agreed on a price.

"[Schwarz]  just said 'I'll process and put it in cold storage,'" Reetz said, adding that it was never clear — and still isn't — which fishery it came from.

Salkeld called the situation is "a mess."

No one from the four Manitoba fisheries was available or willing to give a comment due to the investigation.

'We have to learn to defend ourselves': Frank Kenyon

"Many fishermen's children couldn't have Christmas," Kenyon said. "Fishermen put money out for their nets, for their gas, they hired people to work, and they had no income." 

Kenyon believes the open market system will work — and that the blame for missing payments falls squarely on Northern Walleye, not on the marketing model.

Based on their experience in the private market, some fishers have turned back toward operating with Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp., or have quit fishing altogether, he said.

"Certainly the problem is that fisherman such as myself were not set up to deal with the open market," Kenyon said.  "We have to learn to defend ourselves."

Risk left with fishers

NDP environment critic Rob Altemeyer says the lack of payments to Manitoba fishers never would have happened in the former single-desk marketing system.

"Here we are with four small fisheries in the Interlake of Manitoba losing up to a million dollars for fish — if they never get paid — for fish that they already caught and delivered in good faith," Altemeyer said.

"The best thing would have been not to privatize the fishery in the first place, but given what they did it is still quite clear that several things have gone wrong here."

He says the government needs to have a stronger vetting process and a performance bond for its buyers: "The whole privatization thing is a real mess, and I think that this might just be the tip of the iceberg."

Government investigating

In an emailed statement, Rochelle Squires, sustainable development minister, said the provincial government is focused on ensuring the Manitoba fisheries get the money owed to them.

However, she added, "doling out punitive measures could potentially further delay payment."

Squires said she will be consulting with the industry in coming weeks, and having conversations about "the benefits of a liberalized fish market and the further strengthening of regulations surrounding it."

With files from Laursa Glowacki and Dean Beeby